The Philadelphia & Columbia Railway and the Pennsylvania Railroad

A Ride on The Main Line. The War of 1812 had ended and the country was expanding by extending its borders westward. New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia were the major seaports which stood to benefit the most in trade to the west. The road system could not handle the increased traffic so we entered into the age of canals, which offered faster service and were cheaper to operate.

New York built the Erie Canal which joined the Hudson River with Lake Erie, thus providing a through waterway from New York City to the Great Lakes. The Erie Canal opened in 1825.

Maryland, replacing their National Road, began the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which connected Baltimore with the Ohio River.

As a counter measure, Pennsylvania decided that it wanted to develop its own canal system linking Philadelphia to the frontier city of Pittsburgh and authorized its construction. But when the survey was made, it was found that there was not enough water in the right places for a canal between the Delaware and the Susquehanna Rivers.

In March 1823, the Pennsylvania State Legislature issued a charter for the first railroad in the state. It authorized the construction of an 82 mile railway, from Philadelphia through Lancaster, terminating at Columbia (on the Susquehanna River), as part of the “Main Line of Public Works of the State of Pennsylvania.” The nickname, “The Main Line,” derived from this early Pennsylvania railroad.

A timetable dated April 1, 1837. In this schedule, provision was made for “tarrying” for from five to thirty minutes at each of the stations. These intervals provided time for buying refreshments.
The original Paoli Local, which first ran September 20, 1832.

A Government Venture. The Philadelphia & Columbia Railway was one of the earliest railroads in America and the first in the world to be built by a government rather than by private enterprise. The contracts for the work were granted by the Canal Commission, under whose supervision the line was operated. Considered a public toll road, individuals and companies paid tolls to the Commission for use of the rails. They also supplied their own horses, rolling stock and passenger or freight facilities.

The Philadelphia & Columbia Railway finally became operational on September 1832, with carts and wagons dragged by horse power on a 20-mile section which began in Philadelphia (at Broad and Vine Streets) and ended at Green Tree Inn, west of Paoli.

The first passenger cars were constructed on the same general design as the stage coaches and were nicknamed “fireflies,” so designated because of their brilliant red color. They were drawn by two horses, recruited from the Conestoga wagon traffic.

When the idea of locomotives was first conceived, there was great opposition on the part of those who either used the railway or lived near it. They declared that the engines would destroy the value of their property, and that the sparks from them would set fire to their houses and barns. It was not until April 1834 that the first train was drawn from Philadelphia to Lancaster by a locomotive, named the “Black Hawk.” Not until 1836 did locomotives finally displace horsepower. The Baldwin locomotives worked the best. The English ones, while well built, were found too light for the heavily curved and graded American tracks.

Eventually, “The Main Line” expanded from the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway to include the Eastern Division of the Canal (from Columbia to Hollidaysburg, 172 miles); the Allegheny Portage Railway (from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown, 36 miles, crossing the Allegheny Mountains); and the Western Division of the Canal (from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, 104 miles). This network carried passengers, but its primary purpose was freight.

The Railway Route. The railroad began in Philadelphia and headed in a westerly direction:

  • It crossed the Schuylkill River at the Columbia Bridge and proceeded up the “Incline Plane” at Belmont Plateau.
  • There it turned right and paralleled Belmont Avenue and then followed Conshohocken State Road into Lower Merion.
  • Still paralleling Conshohocken State Road, it passed through the Cynwyd train station, up Bala Avenue and Bentley Road, and crossed behind the fire house.
  • It then crossed over to the south side of Montgomery Avenue (Bowman’s Bridge).
  • At All Saints Church, it crossed back over to the north side of Montgomery Avenue and went in front of the Lower Merion High School.
  • From there it curved left onto Church Road and onto Coulter Avenue to the Athensville (Ardmore) train station.
  • It followed the tracks of the R5 until Haverford where it again curved left onto (Old) Railroad Avenue to the intersection of Bryn Mawr Avenue and County Line Road.
  • Here it followed Glenbrook Avenue until it crossed County Line Road, then Lancaster Avenue, then up Montrose Avenue and rejoined the R5 line at the Rosemont station where it continued west and left the Lower Merion area.
A view of the “Incline Plane” from the top of the Belmont Plateau (north of the Belmont Mansion) looking down towards the Schuylkill River in the background. The “Incline Plane” was 2,805 feet long, with a rise of 187 feet. Stationary steam engines raised and lowered the trains with cables and winches.

A New Direction. Shortly after the railroad opened, it became obvious that the “Incline Plane” at the Belmont Plateau was inefficient. Hauling cars up and down the grade created significant delays both to passengers and to freight. It wasn’t until October 1850 that the Broad & Vine to Athensville (Ardmore) line was abandoned and replaced with the 30th & Market Street to Athensville (Ardmore) line which remains today the route of the Paoli Local (R5).

In 1851, the abandoned line was purchased by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. The tracks from Broad and Vine to the Columbia Bridge were used by the Reading; the tracks from the “Incline Plane” west to Athensville were kept open for awhile as a possible detour route, but were eventually dismantled.

Since transport was accomplished by connecting systems of railroads and canals, the boats were constrructed in sections. They could be coupled together when afloat and disconnected and placed on suitably designed eight wheeled cars for transport over the railroad. In this way, freight was carried over the entire systems without transferring from cars to boats, or vice versa.

Development of the railroad locomotive marked the beginning of the decline of the canal system. Also, the builders thought that once the system was open, the receipts would pour into the state’s coffers. They failed to foresee the huge ongoing maintenance and operational cost required. Therefore, the state decided it wanted to get out of the railroad business. In 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose original charter was to construct a line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh only, bought the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway for $7.5 million. To save money, the Pennsylvania Railroad merely upgraded the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway line tracks and the PRR now had a continuous route from Philadelphia all the way to Pittsburgh. On leaving Philadelphia, the first stop was at the White Hall station, located at the corner of Glenbrook and County Line Roads in Bryn Mawr.

Between 1870 and 1900, the White Hall was the fashionable hotel of choice for summer residents when the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway passed under its rear windows and brought city folk from the overheated town to the country breezes of Bryn Mawr.

The genial host and part owner of the hotel, Charlie Arthur, was a popular figure, no doubt greeting all whose carriages stopped in front of his long porch or who arrived at the railway station across the intersection.

  • Guests reserved their rooms year after year, even though there were no “sanitary arrangements and no water in the building.” A pump in the yard provided water, candles and lamps served for illumination, and chamber pots came with the rooms. Yet the atmosphere was that of a big house party. Everyone knew everyone else. A nearby ice cream parlor did brisk business and, behind the hotel, across the tracks, was a pleasant grove where children could play and all ages could sit and enjoy summer days. In the late afternoon husbands came by train from their city offices to join their wives, waiting for them dressed in their best.
  • But alas, the glory faded. The Pennsylvania Railroad relocated the mainline tracks, eliminating the curve where the White Hall stood, and its summer gaiety declined. Furthermore, the Pennsy built a magnificent rival beside its new tracks, the great Bryn Mawr Hotel. That hostelry lured the beautiful ladies in their long white dresses away and horse shows, dances and elegant socials created new diversions.
  • The White Hall slowly sank into oblivion and utlimately to “boarding house” status. The faithful planned one last party to mark its passing. This end-of-the-19th century event welcomed more than 300 people. The sitting rooms were jammed with merrymakers and 150 guests at a time were served dinner by butlers lent for the occasion. They played games, “Going to Jerusalem,” “Drop the Handkerchief”; a fiddler was found who struck up the “Virginia Reel.” The aging building held together throughout the evening.
The hotel in 1905.
The depot seen in Civil War-era photo.

The Pennsylvania Railroad And The Development Of The Main Line

More than any other person or entity, it was the Pennsylvania Railroad that built the Main Line. For 111 years, its trains linked Lower Merion with Philadelphia and the nation. Even today, three decades after the railroad merged with a rival, the Pennsylvania’s legacy continues to shape life in the township.

The Pennsylvania Railroad began its long association with the Main Line when it purchased the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad from the state in 1857. At that time, there were only three stops in Lower Merion: Libertyville (serving modern Narberth and Wynnewood), Athensville (now Ardmore) and White Hall (Bryn Mawr). For a little over a decade, the Pennsylvania concentrated on rebuilding the line and developing long distance traffic. As late as 1869, the railroad operated only a handful of local trains along the Main Line.

The original Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad was a curvy, hilly line, ill-suited for the Pennsylvania‘s planned high speed line to the West. Throughout the township, the Pennsylvania rehabilitated the old line and the photograph above shows its well-maintained tracks at modern Wynnewood in 1861.
The Bryn Mawr depot, the pride of the Pennsylvania’s Main Line stations, is seen in a 1876 engraving.

1st. All buildings must be set back from the lines of the streets such distance as shall be designated in the deed.

2d. The improvements on the lots fronting on Montgomery Avenue must be of not less than $8000; and upon other avenues, streets, or lanes, of not less than $5000.

3d. The erection of buildings must be commenced within two years, and completed, so far as to render the same habitable, within three years of the date of purchase.

4th. The erection of any buildings included in the following classifications will be expressly prohibited, namely: — Hotels, taverns, drinking saloons, blacksmith, carpenter, or wheelwright shops, steam mills, tanneries, slaughterhouses, skin-dressing establishments, livery stables, glue, candle, soap or starch manufactories, or other buildings of offensive occupation.

As part of the process of relocating its line, the Pennsylvania acquired a number of farms in what was then Humphreysville. The railroad decided to develop this land as both an elite residential community and a summer resort. The railroad renamed the station (and effectively the town) Bryn Mawr. The creation of Bryn Mawr as a haven for the city’s wealthiest residents reflected national trends. A little after mid century, the railroads serving Boston, New York and other large cities began to encourage elite residential development along their lines. The Pennsylvania was a decade (or more) behind the creation of similar railroad suburbs, both nationally and in the Philadelphia region. Although not the first, the Main Line soon came to symbolize the quintessential railroad suburb. The railroad not only encouraged the construction “of homes of more than ordinary architectural taste” but it also built a large hotel to cater to summer boarders. Escaping the heat of a Philadelphia summer by staying in the rural hinterland had been common for the city’s elite since the Colonial period. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Bryn Mawr Hotel served this market.

In Bryn Mawr, the Pennsylvania took a direct part in suburban development. Throughout most of Lower Merion, the railroad played a secondary role. Private developers (many with ties to the Pennsylvania, however) purchased farms and subdivided them. To encourage these activities, the railroad built stations and added passenger trains. By the 1880s, the Main Line’s depots were models of Victorian architecture. Passenger service along the Main Line increased rapidly in the late ninteenth century from six locals in 1869 to fifteen in 1874 to over thirty from 1884 onward.

Pennsylvania trains serving Lower Merion carried more than just passengers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, railroads had a virtual monopoly on land transport. The same trains that hauled passengers also conveyed mail and “express” (a railroad-operated private package service). Pennsylvania freight trains brought coal for heat, lumber for building and nearly everything else to the township for decades.

The Pennsylvania Railroad built a 250 room hotel within walking distance of its Bryn Mawr depot in 1871. It was destroyed by fire in 1889 and replaced by a larger and more elaborate structure designed by the well known Philadelphia architectural firm of Furness, Evans and Co. After the Main Line declined as a summer resort, the railroad first rented and later sold the new building to the Baldwin School. Ironically, this decline in popularity was caued in part by the growth of high speed train travel to more distant resorts, such as Cape May and Maine.
The Athensville depot, now Ardmore, was typical of the first generation of train stations built in Lower Merion. (This 1858 photo is the oldest in the society’s photo archives.) The small frame structure met both the railroad’s and the community’s needs until the suburban development began in the 1870s.

Starting in the late 1880s, the nature of suburban development in Lower Merion changed. Although large and expensive estates for the wealthy continued to be built, much of the new construction was for middle class families. These new suburbs were products of combined technological and economic changes in the late nineteenth century that made it possible to extend the full range of city amenities to nearby communities. The Pennsylvania Railroad recognized the importance of these services when it declared in a 1913 promotional brochure: “The charm of this suburban life, with its pure air, pure water and healthful surroundings, combined with the educational advantages provided, churches, stores, and excellent transit facilities to and from the city, is manifest.”

Although pockets of middle class development dotted the township, Bala and Cynwyd on the Pennsylvania’s branch to Reading perhaps best represented this new type of suburb. Within a few decades of the start of train service in 1884, developers had converted sparsely settled farmland into thriving suburbs.

Not everything the Pennsylvania Railroad did benefitted Lower Merion. Following the introduction of electric trolleys in the 1890s, the railroad fought hard to keep this new form of transport from the township. The railroad even purchased part of the route of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and installed Alexander J. Cassatt as president of this subsidiary in order to forestall the installation of trolleys along the road. The Pennsylvania was not completely successful, as a trolley line was built to Ardmore through Delaware County in 1902.

After the end of the Civil War, the Pennsylvania constructed a number of commuter stations on the Main Line. Built by Wilson Brothers, they included Ardmore, Bryn Mawr and Villanova.

In 1915, the railroad electrified its line between Philadelphia and Paoli. The engineering used on this route became the model for the Pennsylvania’s other electrification projects. Eventually these stretched from New York to Washington and west to Harrisburg. The short, red electric cars (known to the railroad as MP-54s) served the township for over sixty years, grinding their way back and forth between Center City and Paoli.

Passenger service on the Main Line outlasted the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1968, the once mighty Pennsylvania merged with its arch rival, the New York Central, to form the illfated Penn Central. The only change this consolidation brought to the Paoli line was the repainting of some of the MP-54s in green. Following the bankrupcy of the Penn Central in 1970, service on the line began to deteriorate. After initially funding the trains, the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority eventually took over direct operation of the Main Line in the 1980s. Today, the Main Line is one half of SEPTA’s R5 line, the region’s busiest commuter route. Thousands of people still use the trains every day to travel to and from Lower Merion for business, shopping and pleasure.

Alexander J. Cassatt (1839-1906) was a Haverford resident and President of the Pennsylvania Railroad at the peak of its influence and power. Cassatt came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family and joined the railroad in 1861. He rose quickly through the organization and became the railroad’s first Vice-President at the age of forty-one. He retired from active management two years later but soon returned as a director. He served as the Pennsylvania’s seventh President (1899-1906). Cassatt’s major accomplishment was the construction of the great Pennsylvania Station in New York City with its elaborate system of tunnels and yards in both New York and New Jersey.

  • As Lower Merion’s Supervisor of Roads for nineteen years, Cassatt promoted a system of paved roads with granite curbstones. His commitment to good highways reflected his hobbies. A noted horse breeder, Cassatt was also well-known for driving his carriage at high speeds over township roads, accompanied by bugle-blowing coachmen.
  • At the corner of Montgomery Avenue and Grays Lane in Haverford is a small monument to Cassatt’s role in providing Lower Merion with a system of good roads.

Train Stations

A wide range of stations have served Lower Merion Township from the 1840s to the present. The early structures built by the Philadelphia & Columbia and the Pennsylvania were small and utilitarian; they reflected both railroads’ emphasis on long haul traffic. As the Pennsylvania Railroad actively began to court commuters in the 1870s, the station buildings grew larger and more elaborate. Finally, there was a return to simpler structures in the 1950s, when Victorian depots needed replacement.

During the 1870s and 1880s, the Pennsylvania built or rebuilt eleven stations to serve the township on the railroad’s main line and its branch to Reading. These structures ranged from standard designs (replicated in many locations throughout the massive system) executed in wood or brick at Bala, Cynwyd and Merion to individually designed depots of stone at Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr.